1968 Olympic Trials: Into Thin Air, by Mike Fanelli


Editors' Comment: This is the second story from Mike Fanelli on the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and the U.S. Olympic Trials. We thank Mike Fanelli for his writing, and his photos, courtesy of the Track Garage, the iconic sanctuary of athletics housed in the garage of Mike Fanelli. In this column, Mike Fanelli pays tribute to the decathlon, and two of the great American decathletes, Russ Hodge and Bill Toomey.


Echo Summit Track, photo courtesy of The Record Courier
1968 Olympic Trials: Into Thin Air, by Mike Fanelli

Precisely one half century ago this week, the United States Olympic Track and Field Team was deep into the throes of a selection process better known as 'the Trials.' In an effort to replicate the lofty 7,350 feet of the host Olympic site, Mexico City, it was determined that the US Team should be chosen while competing under similar conditions. Therefore, the longest distance representatives (marathon, 20K walk, and 50K walk) would endure their selection process in the 7,543 foot mountain air of Alamosa, Colorado, while the track and fieldsters would be chosen in breathtaking confines, just above a cerulean colored Lake Tahoe, California.

Echo Summit is perched at the base of a ski run in the Eldorado National Forest at some 7,370 feet above sea level. Solely and exclusively for this one event, a state of the art 3M 'Tartan' track was built amongst the Ponderosa pines and randomly parked granite rubble. Oft times throughout the duration of this multi-day competition, athletes would virtually disappear from sight behind said natural elements.

Russ_Hodge_and_Bill_Toomey_1966.jpgRuss Hodge and Bill Toomey, AAU 1966, photo credit unknown
DAYS 1 & 2
As is typical of this quadrennial affair, the '68 Olympic Trials proffered equally as much 'agony of defeat' as it did 'thrill of victory.' The first event on the docket spanned two full days and evidenced one of the meet's more prominent tribulations. During the 110 meter hurdles, recent (1966) deca world record setter, Russ Hodge, ripped a muscle in the belly of his right thigh. He would nobly persevere through the remaining disciplines (including a harrowing 7:08.2 metric mile), but slid from third place to tenth in the final three events.
Meanwhile, a disappointed fourth place finisher from the preceding Olympic Trials decathlon, Bill Toomey, was off to a furious start right from the initial crack of the 100 meters starting pistol. The Echo Summit 10 eventer was his 24th such function. As a point of reference, Bob Mathias, Milt Campell, and Rafer Johnson had just 27 total decathlons between them. Toomey led from wire-to-wire and in fact, despite the challenges of rarified air, went into the final event needing 4:31.6 for a world record and/or 4:45.7 for the AR. Bill instead chose a conservative tact, and cruised through the 1500 meters in 4:47.2. Afterwards he quipped, "I wasn't looking for any world records. I was just trying to qualify for the team."

Toomey's prodigious efforts resulted in a then yearly world leading performance of 8222 impressive points, while Rick Sloan etched 7800 for silver and Tom Waddell nailed down his ticket to Mexico in 7706.

SIDE BAR: Did you know that Russ Hodge's mother was Alice Arden...the 9th place finisher in the 1936 Berlin Olympics high jump?
russhodge.jpgRuss Hodge, 1500 meters final event at '68 Oly Trials decathlon, photo credit: Don Chaidez

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